IN SAN FRANCISCO, the economic division in the United States is as visible as the Golden Gate Bridge. I was there in August, before taking up a research fellowship on the East Coast.
Silicon Valley’s wealth makes itself felt. The city has astonishing restaurants, for instance, but the crisis in affordable housing is severe. Walking to a magnificent breakfast one morning, I passed several people sleeping on the street. On a bus the night before, I saw an elegantly dressed woman hand her gourmet salmon salad to a young woman in a wheelchair, who was worn down by poverty and disease.
If there are two Americas in San Francisco, both are likely to be Democrat. For a sense of the US political divide, I recall my trip in November to Tulsa, today known for its Art Deco architecture. Once in the oil capital of the world, many of the city’s shops now lie empty downtown. In this resolutely Republican state, the wealth of California looks a long way off.
Whether in California or Oklahoma, many are desperate, and more still see their situation as precarious. There is a reason for this: taken as an aggregate, the US economy has done well in recent decades, but the gains have been unequally distributed. Adjusted for inflation, the real income of an average American has hardly increased for 40 years, while the income of the top one per cent has tripled.
THE election of Donald Trump is an endorsement of all that is ignoble in the human spirit. Judging by past behaviour, his unpredictability may worry us most: what an idle moment on Twitter might lead to. When it comes to the administration assembled around him, the problem is the opposite: we know all too well what they stand for. How long before NASA is ordered to close its world-leading research on climate change? How long before torture is endorsed from the top?
Mr Trump and his administration came to power on the back of the economic polarisation that I have described. The polarisation of the political parties in the US also contributed to his election. Many Democrats today hardly know a Republican; many Republicans hardly know a Democrat. Both parties operate on a logic of us-and-them, although in different ways: Republicans trust in the antagonism of an unrestrained market; Democrats reply on a platform assembled from distinct interest groups.
American politics has a “two-column” character, which sets people against one another. Everywhere you encounter the assumption that only two opposing sets of perspectives hang together coherently: someone must either be warm towards war, enthusiastic about guns, distrustful of gender equality, opposed to abortion, against the regulation of markets, and so on, or hold the opposite position on each point. If there is a silver lining to recent events, perhaps Mr Trump’s unruliness, breaking the spell that keeps people shoehorned into opposing columns, will allow them to recognise what they hold in common.
At this point, I would like to provide some encouraging examples of people of faith breaking out of a two-column approach to politics, but they are hard to find. It is still as Martin Luther King put it: Sunday morning is the most segregated part of the American week.
A recent article by Michael Wear, a faith-outreach staff member for President Obama, on Politico, a political news website, paints a depressing picture. The President’s hope to build a consensus around his desire to reduce the number of women seeking abortions fell foul of what Wear calls some of the “ugliest partisan tendencies” in the US: “Democrats’ unwillingness to take religious groups’ objections seriously and thoughtfully; Republicans’ unwillingness to let Democrats be known for any progress on an issue so close to their party.”
Commentators write about shifts in the tectonic plates of political philosophy, but my hope is for something more local: not a reconfiguration of abstract options, but a reconnection of people.
After Mr Trump’s election, donations to charities that defend minorities multiplied several times over. This is a good response, but, as instinctive reactions, I wonder whether they risk recapitulating the problem. We donate to charity — well and good — but, if this is taken no further, we collude in the reduction of value to pounds or dollars, we let other people get on with the work, and our consciences are soothed rather cheaply at £10 per month.
If the underlying problem is isolation and polarisation, the incisive responses will be personal, practical, local, and involving. I know a Roman Catholic movement that set out to build a hospital in South America. They knew that they could raise the money, but they could not find members willing to move overseas to establish the hospital. The project was cancelled. Shared lives, they said, transformed more than bank transfers. It was an extreme position to take, but it was on to something profound.
IF MR Trump’s inauguration spurs us to action, I suggest that we look for ways to meet people we would not usually meet, and to work with people beyond the captivity of a “two-column” approach to politics. Christians might not agree on what is wrong with it, but that is all the more reason to suppose that a two-template model is deficient.
The Trump inauguration places us in new political territory, but what it calls us back to is as old as the Hebrew roots of Christianity: to consider how our faith might inform our politics rather than vice versa. It is to search for ways to be more truly and joyfully implicated in the lives of others. That would be more than remedial action: it is how life should be.
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and currently a member in residence at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey.